If you want to understand why the country always seems to be hurtling toward a fiscal calamity — a showdown over lifting the debt ceiling or an end-of-year rush to keep the government from shutting down — consider a point Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) made recently on the Senate floor.
“First and foremost, the president and Congress need to do our jobs right now — no exceptions, no excuses,” he said, later adding, “something we’ve not practiced since I’ve been here for 12 years. We need to pass a budget on time.”
It’s been longer than that. As Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, notes, Congress hasn’t passed a budget resolution by the April 15 statutory deadline for two decades and hasn’t approved a real budget at all since 2015, relying instead on gimmicks such as “deeming” one to have been passed.
She tallies other lapses: Last year, neither the House nor the Senate budget committees (which, let’s face it, exist to perform only one job) bothered to write a budget resolution, much less attempted to get one passed on the floor of either chamber. And it has been four years since Congress has passed any of the dozen regular appropriations bills funding specific programs before the beginning of the fiscal year. Instead, it finances the government through the massive and messy omnibus ones that get worked out in the leadership offices at the 11th hour before a government shutdown.
With President Biden’s release of his own budget proposal last Thursday, the high season of the two parties talking past each other on fiscal issues got underway once again in Washington.
The president knows well that the major policies he has proposed, including higher taxes on the rich and massive new social spending, have no chance. His budget will serve little purpose other than providing talking points for his reelection bid.
Republicans, for their part, will continue to peddle what they know is a fantasy that the budget can be balanced by slashing discretionary programs such as food assistance, foreign aid and housing. In an interview with Fox News the day after Biden unveiled his fiscal blueprint, House Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) blasted it as a continuation of “cradle-to-grave, socialist welfare without work.”
It’s hard to imagine, with this as a starting point, that the Republicans who control the House are serious about working out a compromise with the Democratic-led Senate. Theatrics rule, with neither side laying out a realistic plan. Nor, with both houses so narrowly divided, is anyone willing to go beyond their talking points and propose anything hard.
“It’s not a process failure. It’s a failure by choice, and a matter of people not being willing to accept anything that isn’t perfect in their minds,” says Brendan Buck, a former top aide to Republican speakers John A. Boehner and Paul D. Ryan.
But process does matter. If it is respected, it can be a means of forcing policymakers to bargain and compromise.
“Passing a budget is of particular importance amidst the tension around the debt ceiling, providing an opportunity to address high inflation and debt through the regular process,” MacGuineas said. “Part of the reason we are in such fiscal disarray is the breakdown of the budget process and the failure of the Budget Committees to even attempt to do their jobs.”
The Constitution gives Congress the “power of the purse,” the ability to write the laws that determine how much the government will spend and how much it will tax its citizens.
But for most of the history of the republic, there was effectively no such thing as a federal budget or a process for writing one. Not until 1974, after a series of disputes with President Richard M. Nixon over his refusal to spend money that Congress appropriated for things he opposed, did Congress pass a law that set a timetable for producing an annual blueprint that would set spending priorities and revenue targets and, ideally, ensure the nation was living within its means.
It also created budget committees in the House and Senate as well as the Congressional Budget Office to provide lawmakers with objective analysis of the fiscal implications of the decisions they made.
All of this actually worked pretty well for a long while. Congress more often than not missed its deadlines, but it managed to get most of its work done.
Occasionally, there were even moments of high drama that showed how seriously lawmakers took the exercise. In 1985, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), just days after having an emergency appendectomy, was wheeled into the Senate Chamber in the pre-dawn hours to help pass a budget resolution.
This year, the stakes could hardly be higher. Inflation has been rising and the nation’s debt is on track to reach a record share of the economy in about five years. If leaders of Congress won’t even follow the processes required by law, starting with producing a budget, Americans are right to tune out all their righteous-sounding rhetoric about fiscal responsibility.